La Bloga welcomes guest columnist, poet, novelist, essayist, writer Lucha Corpi. Any discussion of notable chicana chicano literature will include references to Corpi's work, including here at La Bloga.
Chicana Crime Fiction: Where to?
Since the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter, the detective story has changed little. It is a plot-driven long or short story, leaving room for little more than the solution of the crime. The challenge—the art—for any crime writer is precisely to find ways to offer much more than the unraveling of the plot, or bringing to justice those who have broken the law, thus finally restoring the social order.
Chicana/Chicano crime fiction may follow some, many or all of the conventions, traditions and structural demands of the genre. But it breaks away from them in the treatment of Chicana/Chicano themes and the development of characters steeped and deeply rooted in the culture. Thematically, our crime novels fit perfectly within the confines of Chicana/Chicano literature, exploring themes such as:
• Spirituality, religion and the struggle between good and evil.
• The re-interpretation and re-creation of legend and myth
• The search for social justice and equality, human and civil rights, and as a consequence the socio-economic status of Mexicans and Mexican Americans.
• The history of the Mexican people in Mexico and in the U.S.
• The cultural and linguistic wealth in the various and distinctive Chicano communities in the Southwest.
• The border and La Migra
• The identification and valorization of a Chicana/Mexicana identity both in urban and rural areas.
• Sexism, homophobia and racism, and other gender and gender-preference issues within the culture and in the larger context of a multicultural U.S.
Chicana/Chicano crime fiction offers in some cases the best vehicle to explore many of these themes in a direct, although sometimes shocking, manner. But more than that, it is a blanc-noir socio-cultural mirror that reveals the injustices of which we have been the victims but also the flaws and the contradictions we carry within us as individuals and as a people. It reflects who we are but also who we can be.
Some well-known Latin American male writers have penned at least one mystery novel, perhaps intrigued by the possibilities of socio-political commentary offered by the genre, or perhaps for the simple reason that crafting a detective novel or a thriller is good discipline for any writer. But the fact is that in Latin American as in Spanish Literature the noir novel until recently has been the exception—an oddity.
In Mexico, for decades before Paco Ignacio Taibo II began to gain recognition for his very popular detective fiction series and made the writing of crime fiction legitimate, Luis Spota had the dubious honor of being the only crime fiction writer. In Cuba as in Spain the number of crime fiction writers has quadrupled just in the last two decades. But for the most part, the writers of crime fiction in these countries are men.
On the other hand, a quick look at the Sisters in Crime or the Mystery Writers of America directory is sufficient proof that in the United States nearly half of crime fiction writers are women. But the same is not true in the production or publication of Chicano/Chicana crime fiction. Of roughly 14 writers listed below, only two Chicanas write and publish crime fiction. In a group of twelve, five Latinas are published crime fiction writers.
The gauntlet: Answer the Questions or Die!
From time to time during my seventeen years as the only Chicana detective fiction writer, while at a reading or a signing other Chicanas and Latinas have confessed their secret desire to write detective fiction someday. To date, with the exception of Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s exceptional Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders, I have not seen tangible results. And I have often asked myself why.
Seeking answers, I began to take a look at my own upbringing, my experiences as a girl growing up in the small tropical town of Jáltipan, Veracruz. It was in Jáltipan that I developed a taste for murder and mayhem while secretly reading la página roja,** the crime page of the regional newspaper. Later as an adolescent in San Luis Potosí, I found myself in the midst of a super-conservative Catholic community where women—young and old alike—who dared to read crime novels were punished or became social outcasts. Some women did read them pero a escondidas, always making sure their secret was safe if they confided in anyone.
This was Mexico in the fifties and early sixties, I thought. And although the rules have been relaxed and it is no longer such a crime for women to read novelitas de crimen, de monitos o sólo texto, I know the majority of Mexican women do not read them, let alone write them.
I remember a conversation I had with Sandra Cisneros after Eulogy for a Brown Angel and Cactus Blood were published. “I haven’t read any of your novels, because I don’t like reading that kind of novel,” she remarked. I did not give her comment great importance. There are things I will not ask my friends to do for me—like reading or liking my work, attending my presentations, or even buying my books—for us to be friends.
What she said became relevant when I read an interview in which Rolando Hinojosa talks about having read many crime fiction authors to learn the craft before he wrote his police procedurals. Like him, I also read many mystery novels as well as authors’ essays on the writing of crime fiction before I wrote Eulogy. If anyone is going to break the rules/conventions—and break them I do—it is necessary to know first what they are and what the cost personally and professionally will be. But I digress.
Every road taken in my search for the reason Chicanas do not write mysteries kept leading me back to the reading corner. Sin lectura no hay ni escritura ni literatura. Already suspecting that I was on to something important, I asked Norma Alarcón, who is an avid reader of mysteries by women authors, why she thought Chicanas do not write detective/crime fiction. Without the least bit of hesitation, she answered, “Because they do not read them. No les han tomado el gusto.”
Since then, I have asked many Chicanas and Latinas the same question. To mention a few, their comments range from an “UGH! No way” to
“Ay mujer, es que eso de cargar pistola y andar matando gente”
“Who wants to write about raping and killing?”
“I’m against portraying women constantly as victims. That’s why I don’t watch the Lifetime channel.”
“We’re not like men.”
I have walked away from conversations on the subject with some major questions to ponder: Do we Chicanas really believe
1) that violence has to do mainly with testosterone, therefore has nothing to do with women?
2) that the constant and at times systematic killing of women all over the world, including Mexico and the Chicano microcosmos, is real but it is not in good taste to write or talk about it?
3) that in truth women are victims of injustice but it is not okay to seek justice in the public arenas?
4) Or in general, that writing crime fiction is neither feminine nor feminist?
Other comments have to do with either the creative process or the value given to the crime fiction genre. I’ve been told, for example, “It’s very difficult to write that kind of novel because it is so rigid.” Or “That’s not really a literary novel. It’s formulaic.” And finally, the comment that never fails to get a chuckle from me: “Maybe, to make money, I’ll write a mystery novel someday.”
I do not have the heart to burst these dreamers’ bubbles by telling them that one crime novel will hardly bring in even the five-figure advance royalties in a very competitive field where you need to establish yourself with at least three mystery novels.
I can, however, assure any Chicana who is now contemplating penning a mystery novel that the writing of crime fiction when one respects one’s art is as legitimate as any other kind of writing, that exposing the machinations of a “justice system” which more often than not stacks the deck against women, especially women of color, is not only all right, it is also a way to obtaining justice for those who can’t speak for themselves. If those two reasons are not enough to convince her, I would add that a little killing in black and white can and will do wonders for one’s sleep.
Gracias y abrazos.
** I am often asked why, being a poet, I decided to write crime fiction. In my personal essay “La Pagina Roja” published in The Mystery Readers Journal, The Ethnic Detective I, Volume 23, Number 1-Spring 2007, I tell why I went from rhyme to crime.
Blogmeister's note: following is a three column table that refuses to form itself as Lucha designed it. La Bloga apologizes for the web mishmash.
List of crime fiction writers, Spring 2006
Author Detective Works
Mario Acevedo Félix Gómez (vampire) The Nymphos of Rocky flats
Rudolfo Anaya Sonny Baca Zia Summer
Rio Grande Fall
Rudy S. Apodaca The Waxen Image
John García Pursuit
Clyde J. Aragón The PC Affair: A comic
Mystery of Murder, Mayhem
and Data Processing
Lucha Corpi Gloria Damasco Eulogy for a Brown Angel
Black Widow’s Wardrobe
(forthcoming) Death at Solstice
Justin Escobar and
Dora Saldaña Crimson Moon
Alicia Gaspar de Alba Ivón Villa Desert Blood:
The Juárez Murders
Rolando Hinojosa Rafe Buenrostro Partners in Crime
Ask a Policeman
Martín Limón George Sueño and Jade Lady Burning
Ernie Bason Slicky Boys
The Door to Bitterness
Steve López Alberto LaRosa In the Clear
Max Martínez Joe Blue White Leg
Michael Nava Henry Ríos The Little Death
The Burning Plain
Rag and Bone
The Death of Friends
Manuel Ramos Luis Móntez The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz
The Ballad of Gato Guerrero
Blues for the Buffalo
The Last Client of Luis
Brown on Brown
Danny Mora Moony’s Road to Hell
Thomas Sánchez The Zoot-Suit Murders
Alex Abella Charlie Morrell Dead of Night
Carolina García Aguilera Lupe Solano Bloody Shame
A Miracle in Paradise
One Hot Summer
Carolina García Aguilera Luck of the Draw
Richard Bertematti Tito Rico Project Death
Lidia LoPinto Juliana del Río The Toxic Cruiseline
The Toxic Train
Worst Case Scenario
Michele Martínez Melanie Vargas Most Wanted
The Finishing School
Sheila Ortiz-Taylor Coachella
David Ronquillo Francesca Colón Streets of Fire
Anna Eltera Night Side
Marie Terranova Room 4
Steven Torres Luis Gonzalo Precinct Puerto Rico
Death in Precinct Puerto Rico
Burning in Precinct Puerto
Missing in Precinct Puerto
Marcos McPeek Villatoro Romilia Chacón Home Killings
Gloria White Ronnie Ventana Murder in the Run
Money to Burn
Charged with Guilt
Sunset and Santiago
Note: Works are not necessarily listed in chronological order. I apologize if I misrepresent any of the authors above listed. Please let me know. Also, feel free to add anyone or any works missing from this list. LC